The Hugos, for those unaware, are (speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy) SF awards voted on by people at Worldcon. Along with the Nebulas, they have long been the premier awards in SF. A few years ago, some SF writers got together and decided to push back against [what they saw as] the drift of the awards from their original function–representing excellence in SF writing, editing, etc–to concerns with demographic inclusion (and ideological exclusion) as well as a drift to stories with more literary pretension but less genre content.
In other words, the replacement of questions of what (the best writing, etc) with questions of who (race, gender, sexuality, etc) while diluting the original SF focus. The drifting concern to questions of who claims to be about “inclusion” but, as is normal with modern progressivist identitarian politics, said inclusion was a basis for cognitive exclusion–excluding folk whose views were taken to be, by definition, against (the correct sort of) “inclusion”.
Thus, being a Mormon, libertarian-inclined, registered Republican who used to own a gun shop was being the wrong sort of who. Writer Sarah Hoyt has blogged about the feeling of vulnerability being of conservative or libertarian views generated for up-and-coming writers within the field. (At least, outside the specific sub-genre of military SF, which is rife with writers of such views.)
This drift towards concern with writer demography and away from genre content is classic trumping of function by Virtue. In particular, the ideology, partisan-affiliation and occupation of a writer has nothing to do with the original function of the Hugos. It can only matter if other criteria are used to trump said function.
A key element of morality is precisely that it trumps, that it claims an authority greater than alternative considerations. Such authority is inherently pervasive (it can apply to anything) and easily tied to status claims (supporting a trumping authority easily also proclaims a trumping moral status).
As we homo sapiens are moralising, status-conscious coalition builders, it is very easy for morality to generate in-groups and out-groups and to accentuate the divide between them. (As moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, morality both binds and blinds: a nice short discussion of which is here.) The classic Scott Alexander post (essay really) I can tolerate anything except the outgroup very much applies.
The original pushback against said demographic-concern-and-literary-elevation drift was the Sad Puppies, an attempt to widen the nomination process by suggesting to Worldcon voters writers and others felt to be more in keeping with notions of SF being very much a specific genre about stories and playing with ideas in general (rather than about who and which ideas).
There was also an issue of whether a particular publishing house (Tor books) had been gaming the system. (It has topped SF awards in general, though Gollancz has a higher author/nomination to award rate.)
As an open reaction to a drift among publishing and organisation insiders, the Sad Puppies made explicitly contentious processes that had presented as apolitical and meritocratic. That immediately made the insurgents open to charges of “politicising” and “gaming” the system. Always useful rhetoric for status quo insiders against trouble-makers. Hence also claims that the Sad Puppies campaign was just about getting awards for oneself and one’s friends. That Larry Corriera, the original Sad Puppy organiser, had recused himself from nomination was just ignored or scoffed at.
The Virtue syllogism
But the Sad Puppy pushback also ran into the trumping nature of Virtue. A standard response to concerns with preserving function against claims of moral Virtue is to wield the following (invalid) syllogism:
We are doing x because of Y.
You object to us doing x.
You are against Y.
In this case:
We are attending to questions of who-category to make the Hugos more inclusive-by-demographic category as a matter of Social Justice.
You object to the changing the criteria for the Hugos in this way.
You are against inclusion and Social Justice.
It was thus “established”, as is normal when the Virtue game gets going, that all and any objection to what the Virtuous were doing was, by definition, due to malefic motivations. There being no legitimate objection to Virtue, of course. Thus there is also no legitimate objection to having Virtue trump function.
In accordance with the status-drive (we’re moral, they’re evil/stupid/ignorant) which is so crucial to Virtue coalition-building, there was an associated Narrative, a story of Good people, who seek inclusiveness, and Bad people, who oppose it (and so, should, of course, be excluded).
As supporters of the Sad Puppies constantly point out (e.g. Larry Correira here, Brad Torgersen here), people and facts that fail to confirm this Narrative, or actively undermine it, are just ignored.
As is normal when the Virtue game gets going, not only is function trumped, so are facts.
A striking feature of the Hugos controversy, is that outlets such as The Guardian, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Wired, Salon and Slate all covered it. And they all covered it in the same way: as the heroic supporters of inclusion and social justice being opposed by those against demographic diversity in SF (and social diversity more generally). There was, apparently, no legitimate concern about function, and any facts that suggested otherwise typically just never appeared in the Narrative. Which thus became a deeply dishonest Narrative. One that undermined the alleged function of mainstream media–to report the news of what happens, not Virtuous distortions of the same. (An example of covering the issue somewhat differently is provided by Real Clear Politics and, after some corrections, the UK Telegraph.)
CORRECTION: After misinterpreting reports in other news publications, EW published an unfair and inaccurate depiction of the Sad Puppies voting slate, which does, in fact, include many women and writers of color. As Sad Puppies’ Brad Torgerson explained to EW, the slate includes both women and non-caucasian writers, including Rajnar Vajra, Larry Correia, Annie Bellet, Kary English, Toni Weisskopf, Ann Sowards, Megan Gray, Sheila Gilbert, Jennifer Brozek, Cedar Sanderson, and Amanda Green.
This story has been updated to more accurately reflect this. EW regrets the error.
It does repeat the pattern of using Brad Torgersen as the go-to Sad Puppy to be quoted, since his terribly Teutonic name is just made to fit the Narrative. (His African-American wife, perhaps less so, but she can easily be ignored.)
Having designated Virtue systematically trump function and facts is not a good long-term look for any society or civilisation. But the Virtue game has become very socially pervasive.
Hence the importance of not allowing any successful push-backs. Hence the mainstream media (1) paying attention to the Hugo fuss and (2) pushing the Virtuous Narrative so relentlessly. Thereby, of course, demonstrating just how pervasive Virtuous trumping of facts and function has become.
The identity dynamic
The Sad Puppies rapidly became not the only insurgent players. The Virtuous drift was a manifestation of the identitarian progressivism that has replaced the modernist Left: the politics of who replacing the politics of what.
Fundamental to identitarian progressivism is not merely the pushing of positive Identities but also negative ones. A story of good Who’s who are oppressed by bad Who’s. Those bad Who’s being, of course, Bad White People, unrepentant possessors of White Privilege. (Who are very, very distinct from Good White People–those being the folk who spend so much time explaining how oppressed Good Who’s are by Bad White People.)
the assumption that people would be evenly or randomly distributed in incomes, institutions, occupations or awards, in the absence of somebody doing somebody wrong.
is a very useful idea for identitarian progressivism and its Virtue game. [Including for the bureaucratised versions thereof.]
There is no good form of identity politics. But there is an inevitable dynamic to identity politics: an identity under continuing attack will begin to organise in sheer self-defence (or, at least be susceptible to political entrepreneurs who claim to speak for them). For, if being queer, coloured, female, etc are good identities, then it follows that being a heterosexual white male is a bad (i.e. morally stained aka “privileged”) identity.
One can escape from said moral stain by proclaiming very loudly how committed to Virtue (aka Social Justice) one is, thereby establishing oneself as a Good White. In the case of the Hugos, writers such as George R R Martin (e.g. here and here) and John Scalzi have perfected this. In Scalzi’s case, he is particularly keen on pushing that there is no legitimate complaint about or against Virtue (e.g. here).
Given that pushing morally-positive identities must involve creating morally-negative identities (which is why there is no good form of identity politics), the rise of progressivist identitarian politics and its constructs of bad/stained identities has, inevitably, seen the rise of antagonistic identitarian politics (aka the Alt-right).
This is very convenient to progressivist identitarian politics, because the Alt-right give someone for the Good Whites to point to and say See! See! Bad Whites! (John Scalzi plays this game here.)
The notion that only “good people” will play identity politics was always deeply stupid. But it is a convenient stupidity for the Good White game. Particularly as it is simplicity itself to push the See, Bad Whites! narrative–just completely ignore any role for progressivist identitarian politics in creating this, completely predictable, reaction.
… in wider society
As an aside, movement conservatism in the US has a decades-long history of purging right-identitarians–nicely documented in an excellent work of history and analysis, Right Wing Critics of American Conservatism by political scientist George Hawley: useful reviews of the book by the excluded are here, here and here.
The rise of progressivist identitarian politics has, however, destabilised movement conservatism’s suppression of identitarian politics on the right as the Alt-right’s fundamental claim (the interests, culture, standing, prospects and interests of white people are under attack) is now true for non-progressivist white folk, particularly the white working class, given their role as default social scapegoats. (Hence the success of The Donald.)
The US is now facing the natural dynamic of identity politics–the rise of awful candidates who folk feel compelled to vote for due to tribal self-defence. Given that Hillary is the doyen of progressivist identity politics, and the Greens’ Jill Stein is a case of the same game even more so, the only US Presidential candidate which represents any revolt against the toxic dynamics of identity politics is the Libertarian, Gary Johnson: the only candidate for (in the nice phrasing of Frederik deBoer and others) the politics of what rather than the politics of who.
In the case of the Hugos, the anti-progressive identitarians are the Rabid Puppies, pushed by prominent Alt-right blogger, SF writer and publisher, Vox Day. (His politics are really not mine, but his SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police is a necessary read to understand the methodological dynamics of Virtue coalition politics in the wider culture.)
Vox Day’s clash with Sad Puppy supporter Sarah Hoyt provides an excellent example of how dishonest the Virtuous Narrative about the Sad Puppies is. Sarah Hoyt–woman, Portuguese immigrant–is a poster child for how objecting to changing the function of the Hugos is not about opposing diversity. Hence the mainstream media journalists “reporting” (actually selling Narrative fiction as news) have comprehensively ignored her.
Sarah Hoyt manifests the US as open society and sees herself as doing so. To the Alt-right, this is the fiction of the US as propositional nation. But the Rabid Puppy surge also shows how hard it is for non-identitarian politics to maintain itself once the identitarian dynamics of tribalism and counter-tribalism gets going.
Virtue trumping fact and function. The toxic dynamics of identity politics. The Hugos are a much bigger story than they appear because they are a revealing microcosm of destructive processes in our civilisation.
[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]